The Spectre of Drones in the US, with Andrew Cockburn

Published February 3rd, 2021 - 06:20 GMT
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A drone (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
In 2013, a drone shadow appeared in Washington DC. 

The white outline of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with its tail to the White House and  heading over the Corcoran Gallery of Art was created by the writer and artist James Bridle as part of a project titled “Under the Shadow of the Drone.” 

These drone shadows, which also appeared in London, Brighton and Istanbul, attempted to demystify the drone in the West’s collective imagination; to bring it out of the airy sky above to be examined and interpreted at the feet of passers-by.

The relative invisibility of drones has led to several discourses on their place and future in the twenty-first century. The two main ideas run, conveniently, parallel to each other and often intertwine. 
The first is concerned with the ever-strengthening marriage between high-technology and military spending. The drone is everywhere and can do anything to anyone, the story goes.

This is the secret life of drones.

The second idea is far duller. This is the drone world of tourists, farmers, pipeline inspectors, people with unsavoury private desires, photographers, filmmakers, mapmakers, and Instagram stars. This is the consumer drone; the drone of boredom (“Drone” has long been a term for monotony, as in P. G. Wodehouse’s “Drones Club”). This drone is available in public.

Between these two ideas runs a more complicated, and perhaps far riskier, reality for the specifically military drone. 

Drones can see everything, but only in fine weather. They can target anybody, but so could, technically, military planes before them. The spectre of the all-powerful drone has made them unknowable. A recognition of their technological limitations can bring, like James Bridle’s drone shadow in Washington DC, the drone from the skies to our feet.

In an interview with Al Bawaba, Andrew Cockburn, author of Kill Chain: Drones and the Rise of High-Tech Assassins and the Washington Editor of Harper’s, stressed the fallibility of these all-seeing eyes. 

“We must realise what’s involved in the technology. At low altitude with clear weather, they work very well. But once you get beyond that the problems begin.”


When people say, ‘drones have changed the face of battle,’ well, only if you forget about camouflage

 “First, one thing that hasn’t advanced that much and has definite physical limitations is sensor technology. There is only so much clarity you can get with electro-optical images or radar images (which has definite problems dictated by the laws of physics), and infrared. These are the types of sensors deployed on military drones. Second, bandwidth. If drones are transmitting over large distances, there are limitations on bandwidth. In the big military programmes, that is their abiding problem. The third thing is vulnerability. They are investing a lot in navigation, but essentially it’s GPS.”

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and the distressing video footage taken from drones showing the deaths of dozens of Armenian soldiers, has led some experts to argue that drone technology has reshaped warfare.

Cockburn suggests, however, that cheap methods of camouflage are able to protect troops on the ground from drones. 

“There was a US Marine exercise that took place last year in California. At one point an entire battalion of one side was able to successfully conceal themselves from the other side’s drones that were not just looking with visual sensor technology but also with signals intercepts. They were able to camouflage themselves and not be found. So, when people say, ‘drones have changed the face of battle,’ well, only if you forget about camouflage,” Cockburn told Al Bawaba. 

Despite these limitations, everyone with a position of power and a budget is on the market for drones.
In the US, drones have been used to help police make arrests since an infamous case in 2011 involving a dispute over six cows and a SWAT team in North Dakota.

The increase in surveillance on civilians, coupled with extreme conceptions of drone technology, have led to justified concern over civil liberties in the US and elsewhere. 


In the public imagination drones occupy an almost supernatural status.

 “Drones have changed people’s view of their relationship with the state. It’s reinforced the sense that they are under constant surveillance. It’s the view of the drone that has given this impression. It’s a very scary thing if you’re on a demonstration and look up and see this robot hovering overhead, watching your every move and the data and information being relayed back to a master control room,” Cockburn told Al Bawaba. 

Cockburn sees the acceptance of technological advancements in drone technology as a product of the mythologising of the unmanned aerial vehicles more generally.

“In the public imagination drones occupy an almost supernatural status; they’re all-seeing, they are the ultimate instrument of surveillance, and they signal the rise of the robots. These are extreme views, but these have taken root. So, any claim for drone capability is usually accepted at face value.”

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